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Religious Freedom Report Ignites Controversy, Builds Awareness

Kristin Wright

Religious Freedom Report Ignites Controversy, Builds Awareness

Throughout the world, millions of people, including many Christians, face hardship and even severe persecution simply because of their faith. Only a few weeks ago a Somalian Christian was kidnapped and beheaded by members of al Shabaab, a Muslim extremist group. In Burma, Compass Direct News reports that Burmese soldiers are “systematically using forced labor, torture and rape to persecute majority-Christian residents of Chin State in western Burma." In Nigeria, Christian communities are vanishing, as believers must flee to safer areas of the country to avoid being killed by radical Islamist groups.

“On their first attack, we fought back, defending ourselves and our families,” says Pastor Luka Zafi, whose church and home were destroyed in attacks by radical Muslims in late March. “But you see,” he says, “they left and returned the second time with more of them, and all armed with guns.”

Each year the U.S. State Department releases an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, detailing the persecution faced by religious minorities throughout the world. The report offers a comprehensive examination of the persecution of religious believers, including evangelical Christians, Sufi Muslims, Bahais, Jews, Sunnis, Ahmadis, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and numerous other religious groups, in 198 countries and territories.

This year’s compilation was released on September 13, 2011. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the release of the report, stating that "the protection of religious freedom is a fundamental concern of the United States going back to the earliest days of our republic, and it remains so today."

Clinton’s words were well-timed; in the wake of the State Department’s report, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) faced a near shutdown. The commission, first authorized under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, consists of a panel dedicated to compiling information on religious persecution and providing recommendations to the State Department. The commission was set to expire on September 30, 2011, without intervention from Congress. With only days left till expiration, the House voted overwhelmingly on September 16 to reauthorize the bill, allowing the commission to continue its independent work of advising the State Department on issues of religious persecution.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime advocate for human rights and religious freedom, authored the bill, which now faces obstacles in the Senate. He is happy that religious freedom remains, as Clinton put it, “a fundamental concern,” but suggests that support for issues of religious freedom might be dwindling in Washington.

“Sadly, the constituency for human rights and religious freedom issues is growing smaller and smaller in Washington and in this Congress,” Wolf told the Baptist Press. “These issues have become second-class citizens in this Congress and in this town."

While Rep. Wolf and others welcome the work of USCIRF and the annual report on religious freedom produced by the State Department, not everyone is so grateful. This year the State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom has triggered controversy and complaints from several countries criticized for human rights issues. Vietnam’s government rejected the report as “biased,” while Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that the report was based on “erroneous” information.

The State Department report condemns Vietnam’s treatment of unregistered house church members and other religious minorities. “Some religious believers continued to experience harassment or repression, particularly those who had not applied for or been granted legal sanction,” the report states. “In a number of instances, local officials forced church gatherings to cease, closed unregistered house churches, and pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs.”

Jubilee Campaign, a human rights organization working on behalf of religious minorities, welcomed the report, particularly its coverage of the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. The organization is particularly grateful for the report's “recognition of the pervasive and deadly climate of impunity in Nigeria.” Jubilee Campaign says that “during ten years of arson, assault, manslaughter and murder, only a handful of prosecutions have taken place” in Nigeria, and that “in 2010 barely 15 convictions occurred for the hundreds of lives lost that year.”

But Jubilee Campaign is not entirely satisfied with the accuracy or comprehensiveness of the report, stating that “the State Department’s version of events leaves much to be desired. Despite the decade-long history of inter-religious violence in Plateau, this report only acknowledges the last major cycle from 2008 to the present, which ignores the history and true genesis of the crisis.”

Reactions to the report continue throughout the world. The Chinese government has expressed anger at the report, which condemns China’s poor treatment of religious groups. A statement released by the heads of China’s major religion groups, all controlled by the state, expressed in self defense that "The Chinese government has ... protected the legal rights and interests of religious people."

The report designates China, Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), a designation reserved for countries that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador at Large for the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, said, “Our goal in making these designations is not simply to comply with legislation or merely to denounce abuses, but to take a principled stand for the values that all nations agree to uphold as members of the United Nations.”

With regard to the recently-released report on religious freedom and the list of Countries of Particular Concern, Cook said, “The CPC list exposes persecutors to international scrutiny and can encourage much-needed reforms. CPC designations are a starting point, not an end.” She concluded, “Our goal is to work constructively with foreign governments to help them improve religious freedom.”

For people like Pastor Zafi, awareness of religious persecution and action to stop it is essential. He is calling on the Nigerian government to halt attacks against Christians in the north. “Unless this is done, I am afraid, Christians in this part of the country may be on their way to extinction,” he said.

Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].

Publication date: September 23, 2011